When I read that Thomas Merton stayed at the Our Lady of the Redwoods monastery while he was photographing the nearby coast I tried to envision just what that monastery might look like. What came to mind was a dark stone building tucked away in a redwood grove, with a tall ivy covered stone wall and wrought iron gate blocking the road. I pictured an eerie place with strange rituals, dark secrets hidden behind creaky doors, and unspeakable things hiding in trunks in basement dungeons. Because Lady of the Redwoods monastery is a community of women Cistercian monastics I had visions of old women dressed in black habits peeking out of iron barred windows, - pulling back into the darkness when they saw me looking.
We crossed a wooden bridge and drove slowly down the road to the monastery. We came to a clearing that had two motel-like buildings, with maybe ten units each, about five hundred yards from the road. Continuing down the road, beyond a small stand of trees, we could see another clearing with several wooden buildings. As we approached we saw a casually dressed elderly woman walking across the grounds toward a Japanese-style wood building. She smiled and walked over to our car and said, “ Hello, would you like to visit our church?” I said yes, we would love to.
The church was a modern building made of cinder block with lots of glass, exposed beams and a flat roof. It had a very “fifties-modern” look. Attached was a complex of buildings of similar style. Suddenly another Sister appeared. She was younger, had a beautiful smile, soft voice and a peaceful, serene presence. When I told her of my interest in Thomas Merton she immediately began to tell me some antidotes about his stay at the monastery. She showed us a painting that he had donated to the church. She also showed us a signed black and white photo of himself that he had sent. She gave us a tour of the church and some of the other buildings then left us. We spent some time taking photos while absorbing the peaceful atmosphere.